“Babies” – What’s In It For You?

Last week I saw the movie “Babies.” I didn’t know that it was really more of a documentary and I hadn’t expected it to play out without narration, subtitles, or dialogue.

The camera was set up in each of four homes and then apparently forgotten as each family went about their daily lives seemingly oblivious to its presence. It was in essence, a nature film, but this time with little humans as the subject matter and I was enthralled from the minute I sat down.

The 80 minute film by French film maker Thomas Balmès captures the first year of life of four babies — one from Namibia, one from Tokyo, one from San Francisco and one from Mongolia.

Each child lives and plays in the environment prescribed by his or her culture and right from the start I was struck by how very differently mothers and fathers across the globe approach that first year and the care and feeding of their little ones.

All of the parents clearly loved their children and provided for their needs in a caring way. That was universal. But one would assume that the children being raised in industrialized countries like Japan and America would have clear and obvious advantages that superseded those growing up in developing countries like Namibia or Mongolia, where the place you hang your hat is either a village mud hut or a yurt in the middle of nowhere.

And to be honest, in many ways I’m sure that’s true. Access to clean water, medical care, food and other resources are things that all families worldwide  are desperate to provide their children with. Given a case of childhood pneumonia or a run-in with a sharp object that makes a deep, gaping cut with lots of blood, I’m going to want a nice, clean hospital, a prescription, and an understanding doctor with a medical degree.

But having said that, there are things about life in a developing country that offer children rich, beautiful experiences that are becoming rare to non-existent for our kids these days. I couldn’t help but notice, for example, how the children being raised in Mongolia and Namibia had a freedom to explore and interact with nature that is often missing in the sanitized, prepackaged playspaces of the more “privileged” children of the world.

There were times during the film when I covered my eyes, certain that the tiny baby crawling among a herd of goats was about to be trampled and killed. But as I peeked out I saw to my surprise a pretty happy coexistence instead. The animals walked around the child and he was able to pull happily on their horns and tails without them raising so much as an eyebrow in protest.

Other times I was delighted to watch as these free spirits crawled through shallow streams and played happily in the dirt and sand with siblings and friends while their moms sat nearby and kept a relaxed eye on them. The children of Namibia in particular seemed to enjoy a sensual relationship with nature, their mothers, and each other that was beautiful, simple and carefree.

I was also delighted to see how, when left to their own devices, little ones will make a toy out of anything that is available to them — be it a bone (!), a stick, or a pail of water and a cup — and happily play with it for hours.

I’m not going to hold up one culture as superior to the others as each one has much to offer a child who arrives there. But I do think that there are important lessons to learn (or remember) from the cultures that live, work and play unencumbered by tight schedules and structured, organized play times with kids who gather from miles around at designated times.

So here are my top 5 tips on how you too can get back to nature with your own child and offer him or her some of the benefits of the free and easy lifestyle seen in the village of Namibia and the plains of Mongolia.

1. Limit (or get rid of) the single-purpose toys that fill our homes and toy stores. Specifically, these include objects that are made to do one thing only (eg. a Teletubby doll is kind of pointless after you push the t.v. screen on it’s stomach). Single-purpose toys are often modeled directly on characters from a movie or television show and encourage imitative rather than imaginative play. Instead, go for neutral toys that can be used in many ways and will foster creative play, problem solving, and imaginative thinking like play-dough, blocks, a sand tray, a collection of small plastic animals or cars, art supplies, costumes, sidewalk chalk, skates and play-house items like pots and pans.

2. Create a place in your home where your child can keep these toys and play with them for extended periods of time without interruption. It doesn’t need to be a big space, it could be a part of their room that is sectioned off with a screen or panel. The main thing is to have containers where the toys can be organized and stored and gotten to easily by your child. It also needs to be a protected place where they can play without having a younger sibling come in and disrupt the whole magical world they are creating.

3. Provide them with only a few things at a time and let them come up with ways to play with them. Too often we direct everything they do and inhibit their ability to get creative and come up with their own games. Many nursery school teachers have commented that kids today don’t know how to play. This may take a little time as they get comfortable with the idea that it’s up to them to figure it out. But given the space, the opportunity and the time, they will.

4. Get them outside and let them explore nature! Let them crawl on the grass, play in the sprinklers, make mudpies and sand castles and get dirty. Take them on a nature walk and let them hunt for and collect things like a round stone, a flower, and an acorn from a list you make ahead of time. Look for birds nests or set up a bluebird box in your yard and keep track of who takes up residence there, how many eggs get laid, and how long it takes for them to hatch.

5. Turn off the television and the computer. Really. Seriously. Make watching a video or television program forbidden for your babies and toddlers and the exception for your preschoolers and school-age children. Their social skills, language skills, problem solving skills and imaginations will all flourish as a result. No kidding!

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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